Northwestern’s defense bent to the point of breaking but (mostly) never snapped, leading the Big Ten school to a surprisingly defensive 14-10 halftime lead on No. 23 Pittsburgh in the 7th annual New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.
Already up 3-0 late in the first quarter, Pitt was looking at a fourth and goal from the Northwestern one-yard line that if successful would’ve extend its lead to two scores. Instead, leading rusher James Conner was stuffed for no gain, with the Wildcats flipping that turnover on downs into a 10-play, 99-yard drive that was aided greatly by a 68-yard Justin Jackson run and capped off by Jackson’s eight-yard touchdown run. The junior running back accounted for 88 rushing yards by himself on that drive.
The Panthers, though, seemed poised on the ensuing possession to regain the lead. On a second and goal from the 10-yard line following a false start penalty, however, Nathan Peterman was picked off by the Wildcats’ Godwin Igwebuike with just under 13 minutes remaining in the second quarter. Pitt’s defense, though, returned the favor, with Avonte Maddox intercepting a Clayton Thorson pass in the end zone five minutes later to snuff out a Wildcats’ scoring opportunity.
The Panthers’ offense could do nothing with the gift, handing the ball right back to the Wildcats on a three and out. Eight plays and 74 yards later, another Jackson touchdown run, this one from 16 yards out, pushed the lead to 14-3 with just over three minutes remaining in the half. In addition to scoring both touchdowns, Jackson ran for 147 yards on his 18 carries.
On the next possession for Pitt, however, it was the big play that got the Panthers back into the game, with Peterman hitting Jester Weah on a beautifully-thrown 69-yard touchdown pass just 17 seconds after the Wildcats’ second score.
The fact that the Wildcats held the high-scoring Panthers to a mere 10 points through two quarters was, along with Jackson’s play, the story of the first half.
Pitt came into today’s game 11th in the country in scoring at 42.3 points per game. The Panthers scored at least 36 points in 10 of 12 regular season games, and in the other two they scored 28. In their regular-season finale, they scored 76 points in a win over Syracuse.
Despite the relative lack of points, both teams moved the ball relatively well. Northwestern finished with 294 yards of total offense, Pitt 264. The Panthers came into the game averaging 447.5 yards per game while the Wildcats are less than 100 yards away from hitting their seasonal average of 392.9.
Having deferred after winning the pregame coin toss, Pitt will open the second half on offense.